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Channel 4 Dispatches reveals true state of immigration backlog

In its five-year existence, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) lurched from one immigration crisis to another. Just over a week ago, the Home Secretary Theresa May finally put it out of its misery by announcing it is to be abolished with its work returning to the Home Office.

For the first time, Channel 4 Dispatches undercover reporters have been inside the agency to reveal why the UKBA could never get a grip on immigration.

The investigation airing tonight found:

  • While the UKBA promised the Government it would clear a backlog of 120,000 cases in its Sheffield offices by March 31st, it actually moved the goal posts leaving in the region of 50,000 of the most complex human rights cases untouched.
  • A senior manager telling staff at the UKBA Sheffield that the most complex human rights cases “won’t be dealt with anytime soon” In some cases UKBA applicants have waited a decade for a decision
  • New cases will be dealt with first while outstanding cases, in some cases untouched for a number of years will have to wait even longer.
  • On seeing Channel 4 Dispatches evidence Keith Vaz, Chairman of the Home Affairs select committee was shocked at such a huge backlog, “a figure that is way above what anyone could possibly imagine”. He now plans to questions the Home Secretary, Theresa May, when she next appears at the Home Affairs select committee
    • John Spellar MP says the Border Agency backlog takes most of his constituency time with complaints that some cases can’t even be traced by the agency.

UKBA Sheffield ‘not going to meet’ promise to clear backlog of 120,000 cases

Channel 4 Dispatches undercover reporters joined as many as 800 other temps that were hired as the Border Agency tried to keep a promise to Parliament to shift a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases by the end of last month.

On his first day at a team meeting, our undercover reporter was told just how the UKBA is hoping to meet its promise to the Government that it would clear Sheffield’s backlog of 120,000 cases.

A UKBA Sheffield Manager says:

“I’m not supposed to say this but what we’re actually, what we’ve actually done, I suppose, is move the goal posts a little bit. We’ve put in a submission up to ministers. So in terms of meeting our commitment that we set at the start of the year – no, we’re not going to.”

Each decision this team are making could be life changing.

There will be genuine families waiting to be allowed to remain in the UK alongside criminals claiming their human right to family life would be violated if deported.

A wrong or delayed decision on who stays in Britain not only makes headlines - it can devastate lives.

At UK Border Agency in Sheffield, other applicants have waited a decade for a decision.

With just over three weeks before MPs expect the entire backlog to be cleared a senior manager in charge of families at the UKBA Sheffield talks to assembled team.

He says says:

“At the moment we’ve got about 120,000 applications outstanding which is what you are here to help us clear.”

“I know that some of you probably hate it and think it’s the moist ridiculous, chaotic place you’ve ever come across and that’s fine, I sometimes think that but it’s a really – it can be a really rewarding piece of work.

“I don’t expect you to individually do 120,000 cases but collectively you will help reduce those cases. And we’ve given a commitment to the Home Secretary that we will reduce those so it is a very very important commitment.”

A few days later the same senior manager announces another plan to clear the agency’s backlog.

Previously Sheffield had one big pile of 60,000 untouched family cases.

The senior manager says: “So family as a concept no longer exists. As far as everyone’s concerned, there’s now four different routes. We need to treat it as such, be formed as such, structured as such and move forward as such.”

They’ve now got four piles: Three of them are relatively small and more easily solved. They’re called A, B & C. The 4th pile, category D, contains five times as many cases as the others put together. And these are also much more complicated human rights cases.

In PR terms UKBA can now claim that three of the four categories have been cleared by the March deadline even though most of the individual files will still be untouched.

The UKBA senior manager tells an assembled team:

“So we’ve got about 7,200 cases in those three categories to do between now and the 31st of March. And given last week’s performance I’m absolutely confident that we will do that.

“Category D, as its known at the moment – the most complex cases – the human rights cases... they won’t be dealt with anytime soon. We’ve had a plan that said we’d reduce them all – despite their complexity and the implications they have for people’s lives by March 31st – it was unrealistic. We’ve now set a target of ‘early summer’, I called it – but I can’t ride on a definition of early summer for long. I’m going to have to put a clearer definition on that.”

New applicants will jump the queue

In UKBA’s Sheffield operation, our undercover reporter and his team have been told that around fifty thousand human rights cases – many of whom have been waiting on a decision for more than a year - will have to wait a bit longer.

At the weekly team briefing a UKBA manager says: “No new backlogs is now the mantra and in order to do that we are going to have to think quite carefully about how we handle new incoming work from the first of April.”

“Our priority will be the work that comes in from the first of April. That’s the work that we tackle first and then our additional capacity beyond that drives down the ring-fenced backlog that we have.”

That means a long wait just got longer and new applicants will jump the queue. And those who should’ve been removed from the country long ago, will be allowed to stay here even longer.

Chairman of the Home Affairs select committee shocked at huge backlog

On seeing Channel 4 Dispatches evidence, Chairman of the Home Affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, was shocked at such a huge backlog.

“Good grief! That is a huge number and a figure that is way above what anyone could possibly imagine. And certainly way above any information that has been given - that represents in effect a fifth of the entire backlog of the UKBA. But more importantly I think that this information ought be put to the Home Secretary, when she appears before the select committee as soon as Parliament gets back. I think its that urgent and that important”, Keith Vaz MP says.

He also called on fundamental change to be introduced to when the work carried out by the UKBA returns to the Home Office.

Keith Vaz MP says:

“I certainly was very pleased with the Home Secretary's decision to abolish the UKBA. But when I look at footage of this kind, unless you actually get to the culture of the way the UKBA operates, you're never going to be able to clear these backlogs. And the government is not going to achieve what it wants to achieve just by renaming the organisation. It's got to have a fundamental change.”

Home Office response:

In a statement the Home Office says:

“Dividing up work in this way and prioritising cases is a sensible way of tackling the large caseload so that, for example, a person with a straightforward application to stay in the country with their husband or wife would be dealt with more quickly than a complex human rights act based application from a person who had been refused under several other routes.”

“We expect these human rights cases to be within service standards by the summer and the rest of the family cases within the next few weeks”

MP speaks out about the impact the backlog

Each applicant has surrendered their passport and paid over £500 for this service. Some have been refused once and reapplied, buying time because of the backlog. The frustration of such delays fills the filing cabinets of MPS

For Birmingham MP John Spellar the Border Agency backlog takes most of his constituency time – some cases can’t even be traced by the agency.

John Spellar, MP says: “These are all files for immigration cases that are building up and in many many cases have been running for a number of years. Basically because this agency can’t get its act together and their lives are in limbo. This is a case where someone was asked for photographs back in 2011, sent them in and his case is still hanging around in the system. His life is on hold and the system is clogged - is clogged up.”

“People were coming to my advice bureau and I was noting down their border agency reference number. We were ringing them up and they said, no, we don’t have anything on the system. In some cases they should be given leave to remain, be able to get on with their lives. In other cases, they need a clear decision that says you don’t qualify for leave to remain in the UK and you’re going to have…but at least they know where they stand”, he adds.

Notes to Editor

Immigration Undercover - Channel 4 Dispatches, Monday 15th April at 8pm

***Any use of images or information from this release must credit “Channel 4 Dispatches***

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